I’ve been reading the Mabinogion over Christmas. The story of Taliesin – who puts his burnt finger to his mouth while preparing a magic potion, and thereby acquires all wisdom – led me to a similar tale in the Norse legends. Sigurd burnt his finger while cooking the heart of Fafnir the Dragon, put it to his mouth, and instantly acquired understanding of the language of birds.
And this led me back to Stevie Smith’s ‘Fafnir and the Knights‘.
In the quiet waters
Of the forest pool
Fafnir the dragon
His tongue will cool…
Here’s the narrative: Fafnir, Otter and Regin were the three sons of Hreidmarr. Otter was killed by the gods Odin, Loki and Hœnir. As recompense, the angry Hreidmarr demanded enough gold to fill and cover his son’s otter-skin.
Loki – being Loki – repays this demand with cursed gold. Under the curse, Fafnir kills Hreidmarr to get all the gold for himself. Greedy Fafnir becomes a dragon, and guards his hoard.
Fafnir’s brother Regin tells this story to the hero Sigurd, who resolves to kill Fafnir. When Fafnir comes down to the water to drink, Sigurd stabs him and steals his treasure.
Smith’s poem focuses on a part of the story which the myths omit. She recounts, with great sympathy, Fafnir’s life after his transformation into a dragon, and before Sigurd’s appearance on the scene.
Happy simple creature
In his coat of mail
With a mild bright eye
And a waving tail
Happy the dragon
In the days expended
Before the time had come for dragons
To be hounded
Delivered in their simplicity
To the Knights of the Advancing Band
Who seeing the simple dragon
Must kill him out of hand
The time has not come yet
But must come soon
Meanwhile happy Fafnir
Take thy rest in the afternoon…
I’ve written before about Smith’s fiendishly subtle use of myth. She rewrites stories drastically, but it’s often unclear why she makes certain changes. Here, instead of the heroic Sigurd, she substitutes the ‘Knights of the Advancing Band’: they are brutes who will cruelly kill poor happy Fafnir.
But I can’t trace any Knights of the Advancing Band; I think Smith probably pulled the name out of the air. In fact, it sounds like a generic tautology (because all knights advance, don’t they?) which has been spun up into a grand title.
Why does Smith go to the trouble of replacing Sigurd with a new antagonist? Especially one which sounds like a lazy invention? Smith adds an extra layer of complexity by making this change, but chooses a name for her new characters which actually signals how shallow and arbitrary this alteration is. Hers is an infuriatingly opaque gesture.
So is Smith’s description of Fafnir, three times within sixteen lines, as ‘simple’. Fafnir is not a simple (or indeed a nice) dragon. He is a murderous ex-dwarf.
What Smith seems to be doing here is emphasising her own flattening of mythic complexity into something blandly sentimental. Everything is ‘simple’ – good simple Fafnir, bad knights with a simple, obvious name – and Smith’s repetition of the word draws attention to the way she has evacuated the sophistication of her source material.
Is Smith encouraging us to question the value of rewriting myths? Almost. Not quite. Smith stops just short. ‘Fafnir and the Knights’ is more complex than that. Perhaps because it is more simple.